DOHA: The United States wants to form the “broadest possible” maritime coalition to protect ships in the Red Sea and send a “important signal” to Yemen’s Houthis that further attacks will not be tolerated, the US envoy for Yemen told Reuters.
The Iran-aligned Houthis have attacked vessels in Red Sea shipping lanes and fired drones and missiles at Israel since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza over two months ago, heightening fears of a bigger conflict in the Middle East.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters last week that Washington was in talks with other countries over a maritime task force that would “ensure safe passage of ships in the Red Sea,” but gave no further information.
Iran warned on Thursday (Dec 14) that such a force would face “extraordinary problems”.
US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking said the US wanted the multi-national alliance to send “an important signal by the international community that Houthi threats to international shipping won’t be tolerated.”
The US aims to expand a current international naval task force into “an international coalition that is putting some resources into protecting freedom of navigation,” Lenderking said in an interview this week during a conference in Doha.
The current task force in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, known as Combined Task Force 153, is a 39-country coalition led by the vice-admiral of the US Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain.
“There’s a very, very active assessment going on in Washington about what are the steps necessary to get the Houthis to de-escalate,” Lenderking said, calling on the group to free the crew of a ship seized on Nov 19, the Galaxy Leader.
Lenderking refused to say which countries or how many more Washington had approached to join the expanded coalition, but said it should be the “broadest possible” coalition.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minster Wang Yi last week addressed the threat that Houthi attacks post to maritime security, according to a State Department readout of the phone call.
China, which is not part of the current task force, is a heavy user of the Red Sea route and holds sway with Iran, the Houthis’ major sponsor.
The Houthis and several other Iran-linked groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and several militias in Iraq, have been attacking Israeli and US targets since the Israel-Hamas war began over two months ago.
The Houthi attacks launched from Yemen target the flow of supplies between Asia and the West, and pose a major threat to the global economy.
The attacks have driven up the cost of shipping goods through the Red Sea, which the London insurance market now lists among its high-risk areas.
About 23,000 ships each year pass through the narrow Bab al-Mandab Strait connecting the Gulf of Aden with Red Sea and beyond to the Suez Canal.
Senior sources in the Iran-aligned groups said last week the Houthi attacks were part of an effort to put pressure on Washington to get Israel to halt the Gaza offensive, a goal that Iran shares with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the area.